“I thought World War Two was great!”
Not only did I find myself with the opportunity to ask a war veteran what he felt about fighting the Germans, but I found myself almost falling out of my seat in laughter from the response.
It’s not everyday you meet a war veteran, let alone one who fought in the Second World War.
But here I was, about a stone’s throw from my house, sitting with a 92-year-old man who was still as sharp as a tack.
A couple of times a month I volunteer a handful of hours at a Long-Term Care Home in my community.
Although my contribution is nothing earth-shattering, I have slowly built a bit of rapport with a few residents and staff.
On paper, my task seems fairly simple – volunteer on a one-to-one basis; I sit with residents and have a conversation with them.
However after my first visit I came to the realization that it would be much more challenging than initially thought.
It wasn’t a matter of walking in and simply striking up a conversation – there are actual obstacles that are present in this type of environment: physical, mental, and social.
If these social hurdles weren’t enough, there still is the fact that some people by nature, just don’t want to socialize.
If I wanted to be successful with getting to know these residents, I would have to go back to the old-school basics and values that I was taught at a young age, that for the most part aren’t seen as much nowadays.
Here are a few lessons that I have learned (or re-learned) from spending time at the Long-Term Care home.
My first few times volunteering at the home saw me sitting among a group of seniors in silence.
Internally I was questioning everything that was happening, or rather what wasn’t happening.
Being a person who is always on the go, by nature if something is happening extremely slow or not at all, I feel something is wrong.
So when little to no conversation is being made among the residents that I’m visiting, I feel that I am failing.
However, I soon realized that this wasn’t the case. Although it may be 2017 where news is constantly exploding by the second, the environment of the home created a time capsule that you step into.
At the surface level it feels and appears to be just strictly silence. But with a trained eye, you begin to see that this was actually a matter of being in the moment with the true element of patience. Patience being a resource to endure the silence in between conversation, to enjoy the small blips of life as they pass by around you (such as birds outside the window or the AM radio heard down the hall).
The more I visit, the more I appreciate the slowness of the home. The fast-paced nature in today’s society is extremely exhausting and the need to ‘unplug’ has never been more important. When I visit the home now, I feel as I can actually get a moment to catch my breath and work with my patience; something that is not only an important skill to have, but hard to achieve (as seen in this article, ‘Humans have shorter attention spans than goldfish, thanks to smartphones’).
Sounds silly, but it couldn’t be more true.
I’m not referring to listening to someone speak before interjecting with your own thoughts – that level of conversation is hard to have in this type of environment (given the resident you’re dealing with).
Remember, there are several barriers to communication within the home, and listening is crucial to continuing conversation.
Being able to actually pay attention and care about what the person is saying allows you to obtain more information about them and to continue to learn more about who they are.
This is the most extreme form of listening skills as you are getting to know them and their life – not an opportunity to talk about yourself (as unfortunately, some residents may not be able to remember).
I found that time and time again that some residents repeated themselves and I would find gaps of information that they may not have previously mentioned. This is something I wouldn’t have had discovered if I only sought out to talk about myself.
Often we come across individuals (or perhaps ourselves) that have grown used to talking about only themselves or their own problems. This cripples the way we communicate, and doesn’t allow us to truly learn how to listen.
If I’ve learned anything from volunteering at the home, it’s that by truly listening and being genuinely interested in what the residents have to say – I will always be thoroughly interested in what I have to find.
You can learn a lot from observing others.
Being aware of interpreting information that you see and taking it into account before approaching others can prove to be beneficial when dealing with them.
Think of a time you were at a party, or perhaps a networking event – how much did you hate it?
I feel that most people experience a certain level of anxiety because they don’t know how to approach people. Being stuck on the fence between going up to someone and saying hello, or waiting for others to introduce themselves.
Therefore we continue to get more unsettled, perhaps from the thoughts in our head or getting ‘cold feet’ from having to speak publicly.
This clouds our ability to observe others, and prevents us from actually learning as much as we can before we dive into conversation (should we by chance get into one).
What I’ve learned from the home is that taking in as much observable information as I can, will prove fruitful before introducing myself or saying hello to a resident.
Really taking each second prior to engaging in conversation and processing the information of their body language, mood, and what they are doing is extremely helpful.
Tapping into this overlooked skill with a mind free of nerves and clutter will ease the transition into meeting new people, guaranteed.
A book on body language that I bought long ago, but always remember back to. You will be surprised by how little you actually know.
Last but not least, is a standard that unfortunately some people lack, many undervalue, and most not understand.
The ability to look beyond yourself and see through the lens of someone else is hands down the most important lesson I truly grasped while volunteering at the home.
As a post-graduate, my life revolves around ambition and creating the life that I envision, something that I feel can be summed up for others like myself.
So when it comes to trying to see points of view from others when so hyper-focused on our own, it’s something that can be overlooked.
Think back to times in the past where someone looked to you for help on an issue, to vent their frustrations, or to seek your insight on an issue they may have been experiencing; and you waved them off due to other commitments.
It’s not a nice feeling in hindsight, isn’t it?
Although completely human, it’s bit of a sad thought that we cannot tap into our empathy 100% of the time.
This is why I truly appreciate learning the lesson of empathy while volunteering at the home.
There have been instances where I’m blown away by some of the stories I hear when visiting the residents, and sometimes I don’t have anything to say. Despite this, the residents feel better that someone is willing to listen and just be in the moment to truly acknowledge how they are feeling; a life raft for their emotions at that current time.
You can have the patience to sit with someone, have the listening skills to converse with them, and have the observational skills to gauge how they feel. But empathy must be built into your “DNA” in order to truly understand them.
When dealing with others, you may not have the knowledge and experience to help them with what they may be experiencing. Through empathy, however, you will always be able to ease their pain in some capacity. In some cases even, you may even help them entirely.
Enjoyed the article? I also learned a few things from my time spent on stage doing comedy at open-mics. Read about them here.
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